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Fifty shades of grey
I'm running late for my Tadao Ando interview. I arrive at the interview venue dishevelled and harrowed from my dash to make the cut. Across the table from where I am, the slender 70-year-old Japanese starchitect sits perfectly composed in a sleek grey suit that recalls the building material he is so closely associated with.
I jump in with my questions. Life before architecture? From truck driver and boxer to architect. How did that transition occur?
The translator sputters, "Where did you read that? Mr Ando has never been a truck driver."
I answer diffidently, "Ummm. Online, it's all over the place."
The translator is mortified, Ando less so. In fact, he seems to be handling it rather well, with an oh-I've-heard-that-one-before air about him. He laughs and says something in Japanese. I feel vaguely triumphant at having picked up two words I actually follow: Frank Gehry.
The translator translates somberly, without cracking a smile. Clearly, humour's lost in translation. In his clipped accent he announces, "They probably got my facts confused with Franky Gehry's biography. Gehry worked as a truck driver briefly when he first moved from Canada to California."
I feel somewhat relieved that at least one Pritzker starchitect has been a truck driver. The annual award is considered to be the Nobel Prize of architecture;its winners are nobility no less.
I'm even more relieved when Ando moves to regular programming as it were."It might seem like there's no direct connection between boxing and architecture, but the ring for me is like a building I'm fighting to stay in, " he says."Then there are the decisions, split second and otherwise;everything in boxing and architecture depends on them."
Ando is known for his pared-down architecture that heavily favours the uniformness of reinforced concrete. From his first building Tomishima House, 1973, Osaka, to the recent restoration of Punta della Dogana in Venice, concrete lingers like a metaphor. The latter trophy project was initiated by the French businessman and art collector Francois Pinault, whose company PPR own brands such as Gucci and the auction house Christie's. This seventeenth-century customs house is elegantly inflected with Ando's sensibilities and holds permanent artworks from Francois Pinault's Collection.
Although Ando's work is closely aligned with traditional Japanese Zen philosophy his choice of material veers away from traditional Japanese materials such as bamboo and wood."As much as we'd like to think otherwise a great deal of our lives are spent seeking out safety and security in our living spaces. This holds true both metaphorically and literally. And literally speaking, bamboo and wood are just unsuitable for urban living."
Either all of Japanese is written like haiku or Ando is a particularly laconic man. His answers to most questions are concise and unadorned. Even the 'big' architecture question gets treated with characteristic brevity, "I wanted to bring different communities together. When you design buildings you're actually designing communities."
Ando has certainly built a community of followers around him. Earlier this month he visited Mumbai for a lecture hosted by Godrej Properties. The venue: Godrej & Boyce Auditorium, Vikhroli. Now anyone who knows Mumbai will be happy to inform you that Vikhroli is well, to put it politically incorrectly yet politely, not quite the centre of the city. Ando's lecture, however, drew them in from all corners. The 300-seater auditorium was packed with 500 people, with some architecture students coming in all the way from Bangalore and Ahmedabad. In 1968 when Ando established Tadao Ando Architect and Associates he didn't have any formal training in the field. He, however, feels that education, if not formal training, is important."I've met students from the University of Tokyo wearing their education like a badge of honour. I don't approve of that. It's important not to be complacent and to keep persevering."
Although this was Ando's first visit to Mumbai, he has visited India on several occasions, eight to be precise. Around the time he was embarking on his architectural practice, Ando travelled extensively across the world seeking out architecture and allowing his nascent sensibilities to be moulded by what he encountered. In India, Le Corbusier's Chandigarh was on top of the list and so was Louis Kahn's The Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. Ando has often acknowledged the influence of both these masters on his work.
Ando's first visit to the city may have been brief, but it was enough for him to note that the mangroves could be to Mumbai what Central Park is to New York City. Nothing's set in stone but there's a possibility, no matter how slim, that Ando might consider setting something in concrete here in Mumbai. Needless to say, this city would be mighty chuffed to have and to hold the serene security of his architecture.
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